On the hierarchy of basic needs, books are not quite as important as food, but close, according to Food Bank of South Jersey officials.
That's why the regional Food Bank is partnering with another local nonprofit, BookSmiles, to collect and distribute children's books to families in need. Now, when parents and children go to distribution events for food, they can walk away with a few titles, too.
The partnership started in February and is the first of its kind in the 36-year history of the Food Bank, according to Marie Alonso, the nonprofit's communications manager.
Since then, the Food Bank has collected more than 22,000 books to distribute through its network of more than 200 satellite pantries in the region, which include churches and other community organizations. The nonprofit has started the effort in Burlington and Camden counties but will soon expand to Gloucester and Salem as well, Alonso said.
Each month, the bank sends a truck to BookSmiles' Cherry Hill warehouse and Larry Abrams, BookSmiles' executive director, loads it up with between 6,000 and 10,000 books. Since the titles are going fast at food distribution events, the nonprofits are going to continue their partnership through 2021.
Abrams expects it to last beyond that, too.
"They need more," he said of the Food Bank. "We gave them books and they were gone in like a week."
Abrams' organization has a clear mission: give children books, especially children who may not have the resources to buy them or take them out of the library.
But during the coronavirus pandemic, this mission has been harder to fulfill. Fewer teachers were visiting the warehouse to collect libraries for their students, Abrams said.
However, Abrams knew that food distributions were happening all over the region, since more people faced food insecurity. So last summer, he decided to try and pair his books with food.
He joined food distribution events at Cherry Hill East High School and Cherry Hill West High School. He partnered with state Senator Troy Singleton to host several giveaways.
And finally, Abrams decided to go big, as he put it. The BookSmiles founder called the nonprofit with the infrastructure to distribute basic necessities all over the region.
Food Bank President Fred Wasiak loved the idea.
"Nonprofit helping nonprofit," Abrams said. "It was a win-win for everybody."
Especially the kids.
"Feeding the body is vital," Alonso said. "But feeding the spirit of a child is crucial."
Abrams' organization, around for almost two years, has distributed hundreds of thousands of books to teachers and children in the region. BookSmiles has a warehouse of between 25,000 and 35,000 titles at any given time.
It is ready to keep supplying the Food Bank with the basic need that is almost as important as food.
"If people need food, they probably need books," Abrams said.